Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Sky is Falling!

Do you remember the story of Chicken Little? (You probably heard it as a child, but if you don't remember that, you might remember the...adapted version...made into an animated movie in 2005). It begins when an acorn drops on an unsuspecting Chicken Little as he's walking through the woods, hitting him on the head. Not seeing the acorn, Chicken Little concludes that a chunk of the sky has fallen on him. He panics, and runs off to alert the King - and everyone else he meets! - that "the sky is falling!"

It is easy for even children to recognize how silly Chicken Little's conclusion is - the sky isn't made up of something hard, and chunks can't fall out of it. However, at some point or other, most of us have "sky is falling" moments. You know what I mean: We jump to conclusions based on very little evidence. We catastrophize, imagining all the possible worst-case scenarios. We work ourselves - and sometimes the people around us - up into a panic, completely unnecessarily. We can all relate to Chicken Little.

So, why do we do this? Why do these thoughts, which CBT labels cognitive distortions, seem so ubiquitous? I think of it as something brains do, trying to be helpful. The brain's job is to think, after all, and it's pretty darn good at problem solving, so it figures that we'll be ok as long as it can identify and plan for all possible outcomes. And, if it can plan for the worse possible outcomes, better outcomes should be a piece of cake, right?

Unfortunately, the brain's strategy doesn't actually help that much - in part, because the brain is very creative and keeps coming up with additional strategies or details, and in part because the process of thinking all of these things tends to spike our anxiety.

There are a few different strategies for these "sky is falling" moments (depending on the person and situation). 
1) Worry control - as the brain spits out all of its possible scenarios, you can try to make them less anxiety-provoking by asking two questions: how likely is this, really? and could I handle it? Usually the answer to the first one is low, and the second one is some version of yes (or sort of, probably, etc). Therefore, even if the thoughts continue, the panic subsides.
2) Reframe - classic CBT, this involves catching the thoughts and replacing them with more balanced thoughts. (While this may sound similar to worry control, the difference is that worry control allows the catastrophizing thoughts to continue, it just frames the catastrophe as unlikely and/or manageable; reframing tries to stop the distorted thoughts altogether). 
3) Relaxation - instead of approaching it through the thoughts themselves, you can also try to approach it through the body. Just as thoughts can produce physical anxiety, physical relaxation can restore balanced thinking. Progressive muscle relaxation may be the easiest strategy, since it focuses on the body rather than requiring more mental concentration, such as meditation or mindfulness does. 

Do you find one of these strategies more (or less) helpful than the others? Are there other strategies you use to combat catastrophizing?

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